Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is well-known for being a petrol-head – but is all the petrol going to his head? With the launch of the Mitsubishi 380, he seems to have become a little overheated.

Is it appropriate for a cabinet minister to review – and gushingly endorse – a commercial product? On 5 October, writing in The Advertiser,Downer reviewed the top-of-the-line GT version of Mitsubishi’s latest model, the 380. We’ve extracted some choice excerpts:

Getting the keys to the Mitsubishi 380 was an exciting experience…

The
Magna is proficient, but it’s struggling. After nine years of the
Magna, the time for the 380 has arrived…this car signals a great
future not only for Mitsubishi, but for the Australian car industry…

As
I settled back into the black leather sports seat, the centre console
caught my eye as the centrepiece of a beautifully appointed interior.
The cool blue interior lighting give (sic) a feeling of class and
luxury…

The all new 3.8 litre V6 is a treat…more fuel efficient than the Magna…The handling is fantastic…

I
can now confirm that the Mitsubishi 380 is better built and better
backed than any other Australian car on the market. Only time will tell
if Holden and Ford can match the 380 with their upcoming VE and BF
models.

Extraordinary stuff, says a car industry
insider, who claims it’s the first time in his memory that a senior
politician has “publicly endorsed a car company – and used their slogan
to boot.” Indeed, Downer is clearly on top of Mitsubishi’s PR campaign
which runs with the tag: “Better Built, Better Backed is our way of saying that we believe in our vehicles like no other.”

But
Downer isn’t the only one to weigh in on the merits of the 380. In
Question Time yesterday, Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane noted
that “in a positive development for the local automotive industry,
Mitsubishi Australia has launched its new 380 model, which has received
very strong reviews. I understand that the Member for Kingston has already shown his confidence in that product by ordering one. I urge other people to consider that also.” (See p49 of this Hansard document).

Does
this constitute an endorsement? No, according to Macfarlane’s office. It’s not the endorsement of a product or a brand, but
of the car industry, his media adviser told Crikey this morning. “We don’t push one
(car manufacturer) over the other – we’re interested in the whole
industry, not just one part of it.” As for Downer’s review, she claims
to have never heard of it, but said, “has he? Maybe he’s ordered one
then…”

We also spoke to Member for Kingston Kym Richardson’s
media adviser who reassured Crikey that the politician didn’t get any
discount on his 380 purchase and that there’s no endorsement deal. She
also mused that Downer’s ringing endorsement of the new model was
probably a case of SA members getting behind the 380 for the sake of
the industry.

Well, yes. The beleaguered South Australian plant
has suffered long years trying to sell the unloved Magna to Australian
consumers. “It’s impossible to understate the importance of
Mitsubishi’s Australian-made 380 large sedan,” says Glenn Butler in Carpoint.
“If struggling Japanese car-maker Mitsubishi wants to continue playing
in Australia’s lucrative and highly competitive large sedan segment,
it’s got to make everything count.”

Peter Fray

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